Die, Scareware, Die! Microsoft Takes on Windows Scammers

By  |  Tuesday, September 30, 2008 at 1:59 am

Maybe I’ve been living under a rock or something, but I never heard the term scareware until today. But without knowing the name, I’ve sure seen a lot of the stuff over the years–utilities that use questionable tactics such as fake error messages to lead you think you’ve got a computer problem in order to lure you into buying them. Then they do little or nothing that makes your PC any better–assuming that they don’t do anything that actively screws it up, intentionally or unintentionally.

Such products are a scourge for Windows users–I’m not sure, incidentally, whether there’s such a thing as Mac scareware–and they must be a headache for Microsoft, too, since they’re one of the barnacles that degrades the experience of using Windows.

So I can understand why Microsoft is partnering with the Washington State Attorney General’s Office to take on scareware developers. The Washington AG is suing a company called Branch Software and its owner, James Read McCreary, over an omnipresent piece of scareware called Registry Cleaner XP;¬† Paula Selis of the AG’s office told the Washington Post that Registry Cleaner XP claims it’s found the same 43 errors on every PC it scans, then says it’s fixed them all. Microsoft has also filed suits to determine who’s behind such pieces of scareware as Antivirus 2009, Malwarecore, WinDefender, WinSpywareProtect, and XPDefender.

Sunbelt Software’s Alex Eckelberry told the IDG News Service’s Bob McMillan that the single most prevalent piece of scareware today is one called Antivirus XP 2008. I shuddered a bit when I saw that name, since the app had recently wormed its way onto a friend’s PC–how, I’m not sure. Its fusillade of “virus warnings” and atempts to sell a paid version rendered the machine unusable; it was the most unpleasant malware attack I’ve personally witnessed in a long time, and it happened despite the fact that she was running real anti-virus software and a firewall.

I’m not an expert on the applicable laws here, but I do know that some scareware vendors are essentially digital grifters. Bravo to Microsoft for taking ’em on; I hope the legal repercussions are severe enough to give other con men pause before they try scams of this sort.

Meanwhile, a few quick tips for avoiding scareware:

Be skeptical of odd error messages that seemingly spring from nowhere. Especially if they recommnend you download and run software to fix “problems.”

Be very cautious about downloads from sites you’ve never heard of. If a utility isn’t available at large and reputable sites such as Download.com, it’s not a great sign.

Use Google to do a quick check. Search for a utility’s name before you install it; if the results involve horror stories and instructions for removing it, don’t go anywhere near it.

-If a utility claims to have received glowing reviews from testers such as PC World, verify ’em. Go to the sites in question and search for reviews; it’s not unusual for scareware sites to simply fabricate favorable reviews and other honors.

If a utility site is oddly out of date, be wary. The Registry Cleaner XP site, for example, makes no mention of Windows Vista and features testimonials that end in 2006.

If you just plain feel uneasy about a utility, run. Scareware apps and the ads used to promote them are often aggresively cheesy. If it doesn’t feel good, don’t do it.

 
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